The Clarity of Context

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One of Agatha Christie’s most iconic works, The ABC Murders was remade as a three-part movie series in 2018. This incarnation featured John Malkovich as the aging Hercule Poirot, sharp as ever, but sadly, no longer well respected by the public or his peers.

Multiple times in the series, we are shown a small snippet from his past. It is wildly unclear from the clip what is actually happening, but it looks pretty damnable. We are given zero additional information and no context to decipher what is really occurring. It is only at the end when the entire sequence is revealed that we realize what looked like one thing, was, in fact, another. In that moment, Poirot is so human that everything we previously saw as an unlikeable quirk about him is actually completely understandable. It is now impossible not to respect him.

This glimpse into Poirot’s past not only shaped him but continues to shape me. You see, I am not someone who is inherently drawn to history. Sure, I find it compelling, but I don’t tend to naturally seek this information out on my own. I always thought context was important, but more in an abstract kind of way. This movie made me realize the real value of context; it makes things concrete.

As we bump into other humans, for a short period of time their lives and ours intersect. Their edges scrape against ours and their imperfections seem even more imperfect. Their differences are jarring reminders that we aren’t the same.

I would argue that we actually are.

Sure, maybe the moments that got them to this intersection don’t mirror mine exactly, but they have also known frustration and pain, disappointment and discouragement.

Without context, our brains fill in the blanks. What was once an edge of someone is now (in our minds) a complete portrait of who they are and their inherent value. When we have (some level of) context, it’s easier to have compassion and not take things personally. They aren’t who they are because of us, but because they have been roughed up by the jagged moments of life, just like us.

The hard thing about context though is it takes time to get. You must seek it out, ask questions and reflect back on your own circumstances to understand what you have learned. You need to be able to suspend judgment and allow time for a full picture to emerge (or at least allow for the various possibilities as to what might emerge from the edges you see).

In some situations, the glimpse is so brief, we can’t get context. But when we do, it makes us all more fully human and infinitely more connected.